The Howard County Board of Education failed to adopt a budget balancing scenario at its Monday work session, potentially jeopardizing its fiscal 2024 budget adoption timeline as the County Council remains poised to approve capital and operating budgets on Wednesday.
School officials warned the board they required approval of a scenario to close a $67.3 million budget gap before preparing category-by-category funding allocations for the County Council to approve. A final board work session is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, while the County Council is set to adopt its budget bills Wednesday at noon.
“There’s a significant level of due diligence that staff will need to do to essentially reengineer the budget [following the board’s vote],” Chief Administrative Officer Jahantab Siddiqui said.
School spokesperson Brian Bassett said school staff would be working with board members for the remainder of Monday and Tuesday to answer questions about final balancing scenarios proposed by Superintendent Michael Martirano in a May 19 memo.
As of Monday afternoon, Bassett said staff still planned to submit categorical allocations to the council in time for Wednesday’s vote and the school board’s own scheduled budget adoption Thursday.
After the school board eschewed a proposal to save $7.4 million by increasing class sizes and cut more than 101 full-time equivalent staff positions, Martirano proposed two alternative balancing plans, termed “Scenario 5″ and “Scenario 6.”
Scenario 5 would make up the $7.4 million by making cuts to 34 additional budget items but keep current class sizes intact. Scenario 6 would save $2.7 million by increasing the “upper range” of allowable class sizes by 0.5 students at the middle and high school levels, and restore four reductions made in Scenario 5.
Compared with the board’s original budget request, both scenarios would cut 13 new athletic trainer positions for each county high school, five new elementary reading specialist positions, eight new paraeducator positions for School Management and Instructional Leadership and various other positions. Non-personnel cuts include $411,482 for custodial equipment, $91,400 for interpreter services, $75,000 for student headsets and $52,000 for speech and debate activities.
At Monday’s work session, board members again expressed hesitancy to adopt any scenario that increased class sizes, but stopped short of approving Scenario 5 after asking staff for additional analysis on several proposed item cuts, including student headsets and a diversity, equity and inclusion facilitator.
“I think the board just needed more information on just really a handful of items before people felt comfortable making the line item decisions,” board Chair Antonia Watts said in a Monday afternoon interview.
Bassett said, if adopted, Scenario 5 would add 98 full-time equivalent new staff positions compared with the board’s original request of more than 327. The plan would also cut 24 positions.
“High-risk decision making is what you’re seeing here,” said Darin Conforti, the school system’s executive director of budget. “We are well past the point of saying which of these items we’re reducing are things that we can easily reduce. When closing a $67.3 million budget gap, there are no good choices to close those [items].”
This week caps a contentious budget cycle that began in February when the board requested a $110.5 million increase in county funds, a level County Executive Calvin Ball called fiscally unattainable. Ball countered with a $47 million increase, the largest ever single-year increase in local funding, but a figure school officials said still did not allow them to implement Blueprint for Maryland’s Future reforms while maintaining the existing level of services.
Ball informed the school system last week he would not be supporting any funding beyond his proposal and County Council Chair Christiana Rigby said no amendments had been filed to the operating budget that would change the proposal as of Monday afternoon.
An additional hurdle was added to budget deliberations when Martirano sent another memo to the board ahead of Monday’s meeting recommending the use of $3.5 million to fund implementation of career counseling services with the county’s Workforce Development Board.
As part of its college and career readiness pillar, the Blueprint requires the district to spend $62 per student on the counseling initiative in fiscal 2024. In its initial Blueprint implementation plan submitted to the state in March, HCPSS had included a draft memorandum of understanding between the school system, Howard County Office of Workforce Development and Howard Community College to fund and implement the initiative for all middle and high schoolers beginning in fiscal 2024.
Previously proposed budget balancing scenarios had cut funding for the Workforce Development Board, but HCPSS Blueprint Coordinator Timothy Guy said the school system received clarification from the Blueprint’s seven-member Accountability and Implementation Board last week that they would not approve the Howard implementation plan without sufficient funding or a signed memorandum of understanding.
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Although the AIB has the power to withhold state funding if they feel a district is not carrying out a given Blueprint mandate satisfactorily, the body said in a May 8 memo that no funds would be withheld from school systems until May 2024 as they continue to work with districts on their implementation plans.
How HCPSS will fund the career counseling initiative remains to be seen after a motion Monday to allocate $3.5 million in unassigned general fund balance toward the effort failed 3-2-1. Board members Jennifer Swickard Mallo, Linfeng Chen and Watts voted for the motion, while Robyn Scates and Jacky McCoy voted against and Jolene Mosley abstained. Board member Yun Lu was not present for the work session.
“I support workforce development but wanted more flexibility [and] clarity with the specific funding and timing of funding allocations to support it,” Mosley said in a text message. Scates and McCoy declined to comment on their votes.
Watts said the board would explore “other avenues” for funding the Workforce Development Board at Tuesday’s final work session.
“I would hesitate to say what is on or off the table at this point,” Watts said. “I think we still have a lot more conversations as a board to have around the scenario and the workforce development portion.”
The public can attend Howard school board meetings in person at 10910 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, or watch online at https://www.hcpss.org/board/meetings/.